Zane Grey and the Western Dream

Zane Grey. The name itself can conjure images of dusty arroyos, gunfighter villains, square-jawed cowboys and frontier heroines. And yet one of the most prolific and financially successful American writers of western novels—in fact, one of the creators of the western as we know it—was born in Zanesville, Ohio on January 31, 1872. His works have been read and enjoyed by millions of readers, including President Dwight Eisenhower and western actor Randolph Scott. He had 61 books published in his lifetime.
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According to Carlton Jackson, author the Twayne’s U. S. authors study of Grey, “at one time Zane Grey’s works, after the Bible and McGuffey’s Readers, were the third best-selling books in U.S. literary history.” The public purchased 28 million copies of his assorted books. Hollywood based 104 films on Zane Grey plots, and Dick Powell’s Zane Grey Theatre introduced his work to baby boomers through the new medium of television.

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He was born Pearl Zane Gray, the son of a local dentist. For a while he followed his father into dentistry, eventually leaving it behind along with the name “Pearl.” He would in turn Anglicize the spelling of his last name, changing the “a” to an “e.”

He came of pioneer stock. His father was the grandson of Irish immigrants who settled in Muskingum County, and the pioneer heritage was particularly notable on his mother’s side. He was named for his maternal great-grandfather Ebenezer Zane, who defended Fort Henry at present day Wheeling, West Virginia during the Revolution and was later awarded land in Ohio, one of his tracts later becoming the town of Zanesville. Ebenezer also left his legacy on the land by blazing Zane’s Trace from what is now Wheeling, West Virginia to Maysville, Kentucky. A section of Zane’s Trace later became part of the National Road, one of the first major interstate routes in the country.

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He wasn’t Grey’s only famous relative. His great aunt Betty Zane, who famously sneaked out of Fort Henry and returned with a supply of powder and shot hidden in a tablecloth to aid the besieged settlers, was the subject of his first novel, Betty Zane. The aura of frontier legendry was with Grey from the start.

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Zane was an indifferent student, preferring baseball, hunting, and fishing to the classroom, although he enjoyed reading, particularly dime novels. He and a group of friends enjoyed Tom Sawyer-like adventures in the nearby woods, where they had their own cave and passed around copies of dime literature. The boys spent long hours there, even cooking meals together. The only problem was that the cookware came from Zane’s home, and his father finally tracked it down. He discovered the pots and pans, but also a short adventure story that young Grey had written. He burned the story, retrieved the cookware and spanked his son.

Grey continued to read dime novels and also books by authors such as Daniel Defoe and James Fenimore Cooper. Yet the outdoors remained a passion. Grey spent long hours hunting and fishing, avocations he would pursue throughout his life, even acquiring deep sea fishing records in later years. He also loved baseball and played for the University of Pennsylvania while studying dentistry. After he earned his degree, Grey went to New York City and opened a practice.

Zane Grey when he played for the University of Pennsylvania.

Zane Grey when he played for the University of Pennsylvania.

Grey was a strong man who excelled at pulling teeth, but was less skilled at other procedures and was restless in his career. At times he closed up shop and traveled to see his family in Lackawaxen, Pennsylvania where they had moved after a stay in Columbus, Ohio. Here Grey would escape to the woods and streams, and it was here that he met a young woman named Lina “Dolly” Roth. Grey married Dolly in 1905, and she would remain his wife, helpmate and reader for 34 years, even though Grey would prove to be a relentlessly unfaithful husband.

Grey’s first book was Betty Zane, a novel based on the frontier experiences of his famous relative. He followed this work with two others—Spirit of the Border and The Last Trail—to form a trio of books known as the Ohio trilogy, which also feature the controversial real-life frontiersman Lewis Wetzel.

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Betty Zane was self-published, and while not a financial success, it got Grey noticed and attracted an agent. He was able to place the next two books with a publisher, virtually giving them away. Betty Zane helped give Grey the confidence to pursue a full-time writing career, and he also married Dolly at this time.

In 1902 Owen Wister had scored a success with The Virginian, a novel that would have a powerful influence on the twentieth century western genre. Grey became interested in writing about the west and wanted to see the region and its people firsthand in order to accurately capture details of western life. In 1907, Grey met a man named C.J. “Buffalo” Jones, a former buffalo hunter and Yellowstone guide who now had a mission to save the buffalo. Grey persuaded Jones that he should go west on a hunting trip with the frontiersman and write a book about their excursion.

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Grey traveled with Jones and several other men, experiencing firsthand the rugged terrain and talking to western people. He absorbed Jones’ stories and wrote Last of the Plainsmen, which is essentially a biography of the old buffalo hunter. Grey submitted the book to Harper’s and was discouraged when an editor told him that he didn’t think he could write. Grey was briefly plunged into despair, but recovered, persevered and eventually found another house to publish the book, which was successful.

Grey continued to travel the west, meeting people and absorbing details of geography and culture. He published his first western, Heritage of the Desert, in 1910, following it with Riders of the Purple Sage in 1912, one of his most famous books. Another famous Grey title, The U.P. Trail, was published in 1918.

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A torrent of prose flowed from his pen, including not only his westerns but also works on hunting, fishing and baseball. Grey’s popular success made him wealthy. By the early 1920s, Grey was pocketing $80,000 for each book and was traveling the world pursuing his love of the outdoors. He purchased a yacht and sailed throughout the world fishing, becoming especially well known in the waters off New Zealand. He and Dolly and their two sons moved to a three-story manor house in Altadena, California, and Grey also acquired ranch property in Arizona.

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He also enjoyed a triumphant journey back to Zanesville. In 1921 the town had a special celebration in his honor, and there was a screening of the movie version of The Desert of Wheat, a novel Grey published in 1919.

Many of Grey’s books feature a western hero skilled with weapons, able to negotiate hostile terrain, and possessing a capacity for violence he usually employs in the service of someone—or a community—in trouble, possibly from within the community or outside of it.

Sound familiar? This probably goes to show that we are all “readers” of Zane Grey as the western myth he elaborates in dozens of books and stories is so familiar to us. Grey was never famed as a stylist or a creator of literary high art, but he had a powerful storytelling talent that spoke directly to a hunger in the American public for the mythic west. A literary critic of the early twentieth century, Burton K. Whipple, wrote “We turn to him not for insight into human nature and human problems nor for refinements of art, but simply for crude epic stories, as we might to an old Norse skald, maker of the sagas of the folk.”

While Grey’s dialogue can be flowery and his characterization weak, his work remains compelling. In her book West of Everything: The Inner Life of Westerns, literary scholar Jane Tompkins discusses the power of Grey:

Riders of the Purple Sage (1912) is not like The Virginian. Zane Grey didn’t come from an upper-class background; no one in his family knew Henry James; and his prose doesn’t sound like he’s been reading Thackeray and Austen. It’s wonderful writing, but not in good taste. For sheer emotional force; for the capacity to get and keep his readers, absolutely in his grip; for the power to be—there is no other word for it—thrilling, few practitioners of narrative prose can equal Grey. Sometimes reading him is like being caught in a waterfall or flood; you feel at the mercy of a natural force that cannot be emanating entirely from the page.”

Grey died of a heart attack in 1939, but additional works were published into the early 1960s, although some of these were likely ghostwritten. Millions of readers purchased and enjoyed his books—and still do–and he shaped the dream life of the nation, giving everyday readers the gift of a few hours of escape. Serious literary critics sniffed, both Grey could be counted on to deliver the thrills of a western yarn.

Wiliam S. Hart, one of the first iconic movie cowboys.

Wiliam S. Hart, one of the first iconic movie cowboys.

Other western writers would follow—Louis L’Amour, Will Henry, Matt Braun, William Johnstone, to name but a few—but Grey’s books continue to appear on store shelves. Grey has also attracted increased academic attention. Grey’s treatment of religion (he was highly critical of missionary activity, particularly among the Indian nations), his concern for American Indian people and culture, the role of Mormonism in the west, the impact of new technology and transportation systems on the frontier, his interest in evolution and conservation—these are just some of the topics in his fiction that have drawn scholars to his work.

Other novels touch on issues of politics. For example, The Desert of Wheat, most of which is set in the Northwest, is notable for its strong anti-German sentiment of the First World War and its attack on the famous radical union the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), popularly known as the “Wobblies.” This novel is the subject of an extended treatment in Richard Slotkin’s Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America, to give one example of a Grey novel as subject of critical analysis.

In a future post I will attach some links to some of the Zane Grey sites around the country, but let me just note here that there is a National Road and Zane Grey Museum in Zanesville, Ohio. The museum has three components: one on the National Road, one on Grey and the third on the famous Ohio art pottery produced in the region.

The Zane Grey’s West Society helps keep Grey’s legacy alive, and Zane Grey Inc. manages Grey’s literary properties. In addition to continued sales, academic interest, historic sites, and the Zane Grey’s West Society, there is also a yearly 50- mile endurance run named for him held in Arizona.

Not bad for a dentist from Zanesville.

Patrick Kerin

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